Paul Tsongas as Paul Revere

May 02, 1991

In 1980, Sen. Paul Tsongas challenged the liberal wing of the Democratic Party to come up with new ideas and a new agenda. He said too many liberal Democrats were disconnected from reality, with a list of goals that was more a theological litany than a politically practical program for action. How right he was, and how ignored.

He hopes he'll get a more respectful hearing now. He is a presidential candidate, not just a Senate back-bencher in the shadow of his Massachusetts colleague and liberal cheerleader, Sen. Edward Kennedy. More important, in the three presidential elections since Senator Tsongas unsuccessfully urged Democrats to come up with a new politics, the party has lost by a landslide, by a landslide and by a landslide.

Candidate Tsongas advocates some ideas that are anathema to most Democrats. He is for a capital gains tax cut, for example, and nuclear power. More interesting than the details is the tone of his campaign. By calling for getting the nation growing and prospering again, rather than demanding first that the pie we have be divided more equitably, by looking ahead more than back, he is in the tradition of another ethnic Massachusetts Democrat who ran for president. We don't mean Michael Dukakis. We mean the man who said, "A rising tide lifts all boats." John F. Kennedy.

Mr. Tsongas has compared himself with an even earlier Massachusetts hero. Paul Revere. The title of his manifesto is "A Call to Economic Arms." He says he wants to alert the party and the nation to the threat of not being competitive in the world market. That is worth doing. The British are coming, and the rest of Europe, and the Pacific Rim countries and Mexico and so on. We wish Mr. Tsongas well in sparking an informed debate among presidential candidates.

As for his candidacy, it may be a forlorn hope. It is an indication of the truly advanced state of disease that the Democratic Party is suffering insofar as presidential competitiveness is concerned. Sen. George Mitchell said recently the party was healthy. The proof of that, he said, was the large number of Democratic senators, representatives and governors. There are, in fact, many more Democrats than Republicans in high office. But it is the president who sets the course and steers the ship of state, and none of those Democratic senators, representatives and governors is yet willing to seek the presidency.

The longer that better-known, better-qualified Democrats leave the field to Paul Tsongas, the less likely it is that the public will pay much attention to -- or take seriously -- the Democratic pre-nomination contest, much less the party.

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